Ben is getting tested today. Ben is getting tested today. Ben is getting tested today.
I can’t think about anything else. I can’t do anything else. I’m sitting here in front of my computer, Photoshop open with the latest draft of the month of January for my wildlife calendar series filling the screen. I haven’t touched the mouse in half an hour. My eyes feel cakey and gross from crying.
Sam, my little empath, is standing next to me, his head on my leg. I have my fingers curled into the fur on his neck, and I feel like my grip on him is the only thing holding me together. If I let go, I’ll curl up in a ball and start sobbing. I’m so stressed/anxious/terrified that if I let myself do that, I might never stop.
This is terrible. The worst I’ve felt since Renee started to go downhill. And it’s bringing up all of the associated emotions. I feel crippled by them. To the point that I can recognize I might actually need some profession help to pull myself out of this.
“Come on, bud,” I tell Sam, standing from my chair to pace out into the living room.
I curl up on the chaise and Sam bounds up next to me. Fred is right behind him, and sprawls out by my feet. I open Google on my phone’s browser and check, for the millionth time, if Ben has been spotted in Boston yet. It looks like no. Thank God. The last thing he needs on top of everything else is the attention of the media.
Feeling only slightly better, I pull up Sophia’s number and dial. It’s Saturday, so I know she’s home. She answers on the third ring.
“Hi, Ella,” she says.
“Can I come over?” I ask, my voice raw.
“Of course. Are you okay?” she says, her tone turning cool and professional and soothing. It’s her therapist voice.
“No, but I can’t get into it over the phone or I’ll lose it.”
“I understand. Yeah, come on over. We’re home.”
“Thank you so much,” I say.
We hang up, and I force myself to stand. I’m halfway to the front door, ready to pull my winter gear on when I look down at myself. When was the last time I showered? The day before Ben left? Have I been wearing these pajamas since that night? I pull the fabric of my shirt up and smell it.
Sam presses against my leg and whimpers up at me.
I must look as bad as I feel.
“I’m okay,” I tell him, then wonder why I’m lying.
First thing’s first. I need to shower and change.
I do so quickly, scrubbing myself under the hot water, pulling on clothes afterward without really looking, my skin still a little damp. I braid my hair because I don’t have the patience for anything else. Then I’m out the door, tugging on my heavy coat as I go. I start the truck and blast the heat while the dogs go pee-poop before we leave. It’s still frigid in the cab when I pull out onto the road.
I force myself to drive the speed limit to Sophia and Jacob’s place, a decent-sized colonial farmhouse down in the valley closer to town. Snowmen dot their yard, signs that the boys have been taking advantage of their days off from school and pre-K.
Sophia meets me at the door, looking as polished as always even though she’s wearing leggings and a large sweater that swamps her small frame. Her thick, curly hair falls loose around her in perfect ringlets I’ve always been incredibly covetous of. Even with copious amounts of hairspray I could never achieve them. I feel like abject shit in comparison, guilt at letting myself fall apart this much warring for dominance with all the other emotions currently battling it out in the gladiatorial arena that has become my mind.
She’s holding a couple of towels, and together we get the dogs cleaned off. The second they’re free, they go racing past us in search of my nephews.
“You look like hell,” Sophia says, frowning.
I’m not insulted. I need her bluntness right now.
“I feel like hell,” I tell her.
“Auntie Ella?” Evan asks, coming around the corner of the hallway, Fred hot on his heels.
He beams when he catches sight of me, then starts running. I scoop him up and hug him to me, trying to keep my tears at bay.
“Are you sick?” he asks when I set him down. “You don’t look good.”
“Not sick,” I tell him. “Just sad.”
His expression shifts, as though he’s just had a great idea, and then he races upstairs.
“What’s he doing?” I ask his mom.
Sofia shrugs in answer.
He comes back down holding his teddy bear, then offers it up to me. “Mr. Bear always makes me feel better when I’m sad.”
It’s a huge struggle to keep from crying as I take it. “Thank you so much, Evan.”
Sofia leans down and kisses him on the forehead. “You are so sweet to share Mr. Bear with Auntie Ella.”
He smiles and nods up at her, then turns and heads back into the house.
“Come on. I have ice cream,” Sofia tells me.
We head into the kitchen, pausing by the living room so that I can say hi to Michael, who’s sprawled out on the floor, playing with Sam, while his brother and Fred take up the couch.
Sofia’s phone rings from the kitchen island just as she pulls the freezer open. She turns to pick it up and answers it in Italian. It must be her mother. She’s the only person I’ve heard her speak nothing but Italian to. With her sisters, it’s usually a mix of Italian and English. With her dad, straight English.
They chat for several minutes while Sofia gets out bowls and spoons for the two of us and scoops us out healthy dollops of Cherry Garcia.
“How is Ma Trocci?” I ask after she hangs up.
“Better now that Etta is back at home to help with the bills.”
“Etta is your youngest sister, right? The math whiz?”
Sophia nods. “Yup. The place she was interning with just offered her a job. It’s some high-end wealth management firm in Boston, so she should be able to start making some headway in her student debt.”
“I thought she had all those scholarships.”
“She did,” she tells me, pausing to take a bite of ice cream. “But Harvard is still outrageously fucking expensive, and they didn’t cover all her costs. At least she was smart enough to take up our parents’ offer to live with them for a while. Renting a decent place in Boston is almost as expensive as in New York, and she couldn’t swing that while also paying off her loans, even with the healthy salary she’s now making.”
I nod, only too aware of how hard it is. “I’m still paying mine off, too.”
“And you went to a school in state.”
We’re quiet for a few minutes as we tuck into our ice cream, but I can feel her gaze on me the whole time.
“What’s going on, Ella? I don’t think I’ve seen you this down since Renee passed,” she says.
“Can I ask you not to repeat this to the family?” I ask her.
“I’ll give you full client privilege,” she says.
“You remember me talking about my friend Stan at Jacob’s going away?”
“Well, he has some past head trauma and is having testing done today to see if he might have signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.”
Her eyes widen. “Oh, damn.”
“So this must be bringing up all those memories of Renee for you.”
“He’s not just a friend, though, right? You two are romantically involved?”
“Very recently,” I tell her.
She nods. “Okay, so what are you hoping for here? Do you want me to help you sort through all these feelings?”
“Please,” I say, my tone skirting the line of begging.
“The first step is acknowledging them, Ella. Tell me what you feel.”
“I’m terrified that the tests might come back positive. I can’t help but go worst-case scenario with it either. That he has scarring, that he has tons of abnormal proteins, and that his brain is already showing signs of deterioration. It kills me to think of this sweet, generous, caring man having uncontrollable angry outbursts, or becoming violent, or suffering from memory loss, or…”
“It’s okay,” Sophia says, coming over to hug me while I cry.
“And,” I say, blotting at my face with a napkin, “I also feel like an asshole. Like, how do I have any right to be so torn up over this when I’m not even going through it?”
“You love him, don’t you?” she asks.
God, she’s an even better read of people than I am.
“I think so,” I tell her.
“Ella, look at me.”
I crane my head sideways, and she cups my cheeks and meets my eyes, her own full of empathy.
“Your feelings are valid. Your feelings matter. If Jacob was going through the same thing as Stan, I would be doing the emotional equivalent of shitting myself. The threat of a chronic, debilitating illness is terrifying. It’s okay to be afraid for him. It doesn’t mean that you’re putting your fear above his in any way.”
She lets me go and shakes her head. “No buts here. Feel the emotions. If you try to suppress them, you’ll only make things worse for yourself. I’m a professional here, I think I know what I’m talking about.”
“Right. You’re right.”
“You don’t always have to be strong for everyone, you know. You don’t always have to be happy, bubbly Ella.”
“I know that.”
“Do you?” she asks. “Because whenever I see you sad or angry you apologize for it.”
“I…do I really do that?” I ask, thinking back.
“You do,” she tells me. “Here,” she says, pulling up her phone. “I’m sending you a list of emotional exercises I think will help you with that.”
My phone dings with an incoming email. “Thank you,” I tell her.
“You’re welcome. Let me know if you have questions or want help with them.”
“Right now, we need to focus on your path forward through this current situation. Like I said, you need to feel these emotions. But with balance. If you start to get overwhelmed, like you clearly were when you got here, stop whatever you’re doing. Get up and do some jumping jacks, take the dogs outside, or even watch a bunch of silly videos of cute animals on YouTube. Distraction techniques are actually really beneficial in the short term.”
“Okay,” I say, reaching out for Mr. Bear, who I set aside while eating my ice cream.
“When you’re able to, go all the way down that worst case scenario.”
“Oh, fuck.” I clutch the stuffed animal close, my fear returning in full force.
“It doesn’t have to be today, or even tomorrow. But you need to chase that path, and instead of just dwelling on how horrible it will be, find solutions. So he might have memory loss. Okay, find some brain exercises that have proven effective for Alzheimer’s patients. Things like that.”
“I…I think I can manage that.”
“I think so too. You’re a helper. You have been for at least as long as I’ve known you. That desire to take action, to do something to make things better is your best ally right now. Especially after Stan’s diagnosis. However it turns out.”
“Are there specific ways that I can help him?” I ask, fixating on this.
“There are. One way is to encourage him to feel whatever losses he might have. Loss is like a wound, and grief can be considered the healing element. The bigger his loss, the longer it might take for him to heal, so expect him to be down for a while.”
I chew my bottom lip for a minute. “So, he has depression and anxiety. Could heavy grief be dangerous for him?”
“You mean could it make him suicidal?”
Oh, God. “Yes.”
“It might, Ella. There’s really no way to tell. Everyone is different. But yes, I’d say the chance is higher. Does he have a therapist?”
“He does. And he says during his lower points he talks to him every day.”
She nods. “That’s good. He should stick tight to that. And he might need to adjust any medication he’s on too. And maybe not be left alone for too long.”
“His parents are with him now.”
“He might need them to stay for a while. With brain injuries, as with diseases like cancer, there can be a lot of collateral loss. Like the financial burden of medical bills, the inability to trust yourself in social situations, maybe not being able to work or drive. These will be future losses for him, things his doctors will eventually tell him he has to consider, which can cause something called anticipatory grief.”
“Anticipatory grief?” I ask. “I’ve never even heard of that.”
“Renee went so quickly after her diagnosis that there wasn’t really time for me to bring it up with you,” she says. “Basically, once Stan’s initial grief is over, he’ll have all these microcosms of it. The important thing is to keep to the same process of healing. He needs to allow himself to feel each potential loss ahead of time and accept the reality of it. This will really help him when it comes time to actually experience the loss. And he needs to realize that he’ll have set backs. That some days he might seem fine, and then the next he can’t get out of bed because he’s so sad.”
“Is there anything I can do to help him with that?”
“The first thing is to realize that you might experience it right along with him. Apply the same techniques to your own emotions. Grieve, accept the potential loss, and, for you, find a way to help him do the same. Whether that is just staying with him on his bad days, or encouraging him to feel his emotions. Men can sometimes struggle most with that.”
“Okay. Thank you so much for this, Sophia.”
“You’re welcome. Here, I have some more exercises for that. And some links if you get stuck and you can’t get reach me for whatever reason,” she says, her fingers flying over her phone screen as she fires off more emails.
My own phone dings several times from beside me.
“Do you have anything to help me through the next few days while I wait to hear from him about his results?” I ask her.
She arches a brow. “I got some horse tranquilizers I could douse you with. Put you under for at least 48 hours.”
“I can’t tell if you’re joking or not, but if you’re not, yes please.”
She grins. “You knew I was joking. Okay, so here’s what might work best.”
We talk for another hour, until I run out of questions. I spend the rest of the afternoon at her house, distracting myself. We plan out more of Jacob’s welcome home party. I play outside with the boys and the dogs once the sun peaks out from behind the clouds. Afterward, I read a sleepy Evan his favorite book. Twice. When he conks out, Michael and I play a few rounds of Mario Kart on Jacob’s old game console. Michael totally kicks my ass, the little game shark. Later, I help Sofia make her mother’s recipe for pasta fazool, and she teaches me a little Italian while we work – mostly swear words, which she insists are the best introduction into any language.
I leave her house feeling much better than I did when I arrived, and when I get home, I sink down onto the couch, let myself be terrified until I can’t take it anymore, and then pull up the YouTube channel for a vocal competition and watch literally all of the auditions.
I go to bed earlier than normal, worn out from the emotional rollercoaster I’ve been stuck on the past few days.
I fall asleep thinking about Ben.
And wake up to what seems like a nightmare.
Copyright © 2018 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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